June 20, 2023

Unite the Field Workshop – “Confronting Barriers to Youth Engagement”

Unite the Field Workshop – “Confronting Barriers to Youth Engagement”

Over 60 people filled the lecture hall of the Jerusalem International YMCA, divided into 5 discussion circles. They leaned toward the center to better hear one another through the excited voices exchanging stories and experiences about youth activism and the challenge of breaking down barriers that keep young people from engaging with the peacebuilding field. This was the beginning of the Confronting Barriers to Youth Engagement workshop, part of ALLMEP’s Unite the Field 2023 conference held last week in Jerusalem.

As fitting to brief theoretical discussions in large groups, attendees may have left the room with more questions than answers, giving way for a series of follow-on conversations and working groups to grow from this meeting. But, undoubtedly, the group left with a consensus around the invaluable significance of engaging the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians in peacebuilding work.

A main topic of discussion was cross-border education. As its name suggests, these programs aim at bringing kids and youth from either side of the conflict into contact, to learn of each other’s reality and narrative, and to grow together. Not only to bring hearts closer, but to humanize the people of the other side, put a face and a story to a collection of stereotypes, explore perspectives, listen to one another’s realities and experiences – good and bad, and broaden understanding. Answering popular criticism; we are not just meeting for hummus and hugs, we are here to learn and develop. To teach empathy and perspective, and wrestle with the difficult and tragic history of the conflict.

How then, it was asked, do we promote youth engagement within the highly polarized social context of distrust, fear, and hate? As hope for a better future of peace and justice is running at an all time low, motivation to engage in difficult conversations is declining. While Jewish Israeli youth are not encouraged to develop critical thinking, Palestinian youth are targeted by their communities as normalizers. Moreover, formal education systems are of little help, as they seem to prefer ignoring the elephant in the room rather than teach the youth to ask the difficult questions. In this context of these multiple barriers, the group asked, “How do we encourage the youth to join the dialogue circle?”

It was suggested that each national group might have different incentives for such engagement. Other than the moral motivation, Palestinian youth might be looking for jobs and personal development opportunities, while Jewish Israelis are more likely to be driven by curiosity to learn about the other. A well designed participants-recruitment strategy should take into account all limitations and possibilities the different motivations can impose. 

This led the group to consider the question of alumni programs; once the youth are engaged, how do we keep them active? Once the program is over, what type of post-program contact is most appropriate, sustainable and productive?

Other than the geographical barrier, there is the issue of military service; once these programs end, most Jewish Israeli youth will continue onto joining the IDF, leading not only to an age gap between the alumni, but also to a potential moral rift between them and the Palestinian participants. This sensitive issue is often avoided in the dialogue room, for the understandable reason of it being an extremely hot potato that threatens the cohesion of the group. It was clear to the group that as professionals, we need to be able to address this reality, first within our teams and then with participants.

Difficult and triggering topics are not a foreign element of dialogue groups, particularly among young people. Consequently, the question of how to support participants through the process was another central topic, both in the smaller groups and in the general assembly. The practice of interval uni-national sessions was brought up, where each national group periodically meets individually without members of the other group, both as a tool for processing the oftentimes overwhelming emotions, as well as a key method for promoting engagement with the questions of national narrative and identity..

This is just a small fraction of the issues that were brought up by workshop participants, and there are many more that need to be addressed. Language barriers, the question of trauma, creating safe spaces, and dialogue methodology are all part of the cross-border education puzzle. This is an ongoing conversation which our community needs to be having, both within and outside of the ALLMEP network, which we firmly intend on facilitating.

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